Among writers, there exists, for some, a latent sense of snobbery when it comes to the romance genre. Perhaps, they feel as if romance is easy to write. Like, it doesn’t take any effort. As my good friend Travis Perry jokingly mocked to me once when we worked on a romantic fiction project together, “Kissy, kissy.”
It should be noted that some speculative fiction writers will add a romantic element in their stories. Often, the romantic element is under-utilized because the writers have a preconceived bias about romance. They don’t feel it’s important.1
Romance is just as fantastical. Romance writers create an engaging couple that, despite the ups and downs, survive and thrive. 2
Relationships – the glue of a romantic story
Relationships make the world go around. Regardless of the genre, every story is built upon relationships. No relationship, no story. Humanoid or not, sentient beings or instinctual predators, plant life, angels, demons – every story is built upon relationships.
Romance tropes and why they work
Here’s a secret: people read what they are familiar and comfortable with. Chances are, if you like dragon stories, you’ve read dozens of books about them. It doesn’t matter if the story has twists and turns, or even a fresh spin. What drew you to the story is that it contained dragons.
Some popular romantic tropes are:
First love – Exploring the characters’ first awakening feelings of romance.
Enemies-to-lovers – Friction between two seemingly aggressive and opposing characters that hide a romance.
Second chance – Presenting or gaining an opportunity to regain a lost romance ripped apart by conflict.
Best friends – Transforming an intimate friendship into a romantic relationship.
Forbidden love – An external or internal mandate or perception creates a taboo romance.
There are plenty more and while it is true that tropes can be overused, they aid in helping to defining the pathway of the couple’s journey. It should be noted that tropes are reflections of real life. There’s not a person who is reading this blog post that hasn’t a relationship that started in one of these ways. Or even a combination.
When authors who are trying to write a romance ask my advice, if they are married or in a relationship, I often tell them to remember what it was like for them. Often, I hear, “Well, our relationship was different.” “It’s complicated.”
Great! Go from there.
Hopefully, through the tropes I’ve provided, you can see how a speculative fiction story can utilize them. Starman (1984) What if an alien came to Earth and took over a man’s dying remains and falls in love with his wife?
Worldbuilding through romance
Understanding the fantastical elements of romance is to understand that the dynamics of the couple is central to the storyline. We experience the world through the couple’s eyes, interactions, and responses to external stimuli. A story can have romantic elements in it, but simply having those elements doesn’t make it a romance.
In the movie Her (2013), our protagonist develops a relationship with his AI virtual assistant. Through their relationship, we learn about the world our protagonist lives in. Yet, it’s not the relationship that is core of the story. It plays a major role but at the end, the movie tackles other questions besides their relationship.
In Ex-Machina (2014), our protagonist learns the hard way that his AI Robot romantic interest passed the Turing Test with flying colors. We learn about the blurred line between the natural and programmed. Whether AI consciousness, allowed to develop, would be able to deceive us.
In these two movies, the romantic element moves the plot along but ultimately, the couple doesn’t end up together. In my opinion, and in the romance world, opinions differ, a romance is when the relationship, through the ups, downs, twists, or turns, the conclusion is the cemented relationship of the main characters.
That’s right — happily ever after!
In Jupiter Ascending (2015), the main story revolves around the relationship between June, the cleaning woman come galactic princess and her protector, a half human/half canine soldier Caine. Through our couple, we learn of the worldview, conflict, and more. I wouldn’t call the movie a romance as the couple’s relationship isn’t front and center. In the true nature of a space opera, other points of view intersect but at the core, you have strong romantic element.
C. S. Johnson’s book, Northern Lights, Southern Stars is a great example of romantic fantasy. A retelling of Snow White, we experience our world through the dark-skinned princess Ebony of the Southern Colonies and her love interest, the pale-skinned Prince Rion with commentary from his stepmother, the evil Queen. The romance is the core of the story with their relationship moving the action and plot along.
Plot development through romance
In Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series, we follow the main characters, Richard Rahl and Kahlan Amnell through twenty-five books. Their relationship throughout the books evolves in ways through the external happenings all around them. Richard’s love for Kahlan remains true despite a dumpster truck of happenings. Goodkind considered his books to be fantasy, but I think he was shocked when his fourth book in the series, Temple of the Winds, won a Romantic Times award because, like it or not, the romance between Richard and Kahlan appealed to romance readers.
In the same way, romance can help develop a plot. In Carole McDonnell’s tribal speculative fiction book Wind Follower, Satha and her husband Loic are forced to deal with a long separation, invaders, and other elements. Through these events, they are changed and grow but the plot moves along because of them.
Every relationship experiences conflict. No conflict means no growth. You don’t know what type of hardships you can live through until you live through them.
As in life, a couple who experiences hardship and survives them, often grow stronger. In the agonizing slow-burn series, Colony (2016-2018), we follow husband and wife, Will and Kate Bowman as they navigate their life through the occupation of an alien race that dominates Earth. Will becomes a collaborator while Kate becomes part of the resistance. Will is acting as a double agent, pretending to be a collaborator but trying to gain information about his missing son. He’s forced to kill resistance members, which puts Kate in danger as this is a secret from her husband. Throughout the series, their relationship is attacked from all sides, all while the plot of the story moves it along.
Romance makes the story.
I tell myself he’s not real, but it’s hard to remember that when he’s sitting across from me in the bathtub.
“Read my audiobook,” I command him.
His electric blue eyes gleam for a second. Do they gleam because he’s processing my request? Or because he’s excited to read this juicy part of the book just as I am excited to hear him read it in that deep, milk and honey voice?
He speaks, his full lips moving, reciting the sensuous words as I slowly sink deeper into the bubbles. I try to remember that the man in the tub with me is only a visual representation of millions of lines of code, a force field, and holographic technology. Layers of artificial means to simulate reality for my pleasure.
A jarring series of knocks almost…almost…takes away the magic of the moment, but I ignore them. The man before me may not be real, but he’s more real to me than my husband knocking at the door, begging to be let in.
The above snippet is ‘fan fiction’ of the Michael B. Jordan commercial I alluded to last week. In it, I ask the question: “What if a woman finds herself in a love triangle with her distant husband and a computer program?”
To conclude, the fantastical elements of romance are just as strong. Crafting a story utilizing the relationship as the main vehicle is a skillset to be honed and improved over time. Speculative fiction writers need to consider that in their great worldbuilding, can a couple fall in love and grow together?
As a pastor told me last week: Our whole relationship with God is romance, of the right kind.
Ah! Isn’t that romantic?
What are some ways you can explore your speculative fiction world through romance? Do you think romance is overrated? How does your own real-life romance show up in your stories or books you read? Share your thoughts!
- Look, the thing about romance, in fiction and in life, is finding the person that gets you on you on a bad day. Who flows with your crazy and you can flow with theirs. They live life with you, no matter what. These ideals sound trippy in today’s cynical world that turns it’s back on a loving God. Divorce, affairs, failures seems to be norm and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight. ↩
- The journey of finding that person is the exciting part of romance. It’s being privy to their thoughts, emotions, and interactions. There are those who say the idea of ‘soulmates’, the man or woman who is builds your world and makes it better, doesn’t exist. I disagree. I believe we’ve forgotten to ask the Lord to lead us to our soulmates. But that’s another discussion for another time. Those of us who are believers, know we can only find true completeness in the Lord. Which is very true, don’t misunderstand. But can you see how when Adam was in the garden, the Lord said, “It is not good for man to be alone.” With that, he created Eve. ↩